Ultimate Guide to Perfect Sleep (Part 1)

This may be the SINGLE most important thing you can do for your health

Written by Annalise May
Posted December 19, 2018 at 11:39AM

The perfect night’s sleep... Sounds like a dream, right?

How much coffee did you need this morning to wake up? When was the last time you didn’t need to hit that snooze button?

Although we would like to think otherwise, as humans, we need sleep in order to function.

Our 24/7 lifestyle and daily demands may have you doubting the necessity of at least seven hours a night. However, sleep deprivation may be affecting you more than you realize.1

Routinely sleeping less than you need, even just for one week, can double your risk of cancer, suppress your immune system, and determine whether or not you will develop Alzheimer’s disease.

Little sleep is also a major risk factor for cardiovascular complications, such as stroke, high blood pressure, and heart failure, not to mention that it increases the chance of developing psychiatric conditions such as anxiety, depression, and suicidality.2

So how do you reverse these risks?

You may be overwhelmed by the information out there...

But this article series will break down the easiest and most practical steps you can take to biohack your sleep, so keep reading!

Biohacking is a scientific approach to building and changing your habits and monitoring behavior.

You could also call it your own personal experiment.

While there is no simple, overnight, or quick cure to get a good night’s sleep, this guide will lay out all of the information you need to find your own personal “perfect” night.

After reading this guide, you’ll be ready for your own sleep biohack.

There’s no super-secret expensive product — information is free!

First, let’s take a look at how we became so sleep deprived, how sleep works, and why we need it.

America: A Sleep-Deprived Nation

Despite the growing concern about the effects of sleep loss, Americans continue to sleep less.

It is a common myth that adults can run on as few as six hours per night.

Although losing just one hour a night may not sound like much, sleep deprivation puts stress on every system in your body. Research shows that even minor sleep loss can have immediate effects such as reducing the ability to think clearly and form memories and slowing reaction time.3

Improving your sleep habits can do more than just improve your health. It can also protect you and others around you from danger.

One of the most frightening effects of sleep loss is how it can actually harm and kill people.  

Drowsiness while driving is an unfortunately common, and dangerous, scenario. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that driving while sleep-deprived was responsible for 44,000 injuries, 72,000 crashes, and 800 deaths in 2013.4

Sleep deprivation can more than triple your risk for a work-related or traffic accident.5

The most destructive accidents, such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident, and Three Mile Island accident were partially due to the impairment of overly exhausted night-shift workers.6

The consequences of chronic sleep loss are estimated to cost $16 billion in health care and $50 billion in lost productivity every year!

Luckily, scientists and researchers have spent years trying to decipher the effects of adequate sleep on health as well as experimental options to improve sleep.

Believe it or not, sleep loss alone can be dangerous.

The history of sleep research goes all the way back to the 18th century, and it has documented mysterious deaths from lack of sleep.

Abnormal brain imaging studies from a patient with FFI
Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5446761/

Have you ever heard of fatal familial insomnia (FFI)?

This rare disease is a perfect example of the tragic effects sleep loss can have on the brain and body.

FFI is passed down through a handful of unlucky families.

This disease directly affects the brain by targeting parts of the thalamus, which is in the center of the skull. This “hub” in the brain is in charge of autonomic responses in the body, such as blood pressure, hormone secretion, and temperature control. When these functions go haywire, sufferers are unable to “shut off” their consciousness, and this results in unbreakable insomnia.

Once the symptoms of insomnia appear, life expectancy drops to a couple of (sleepless) months.7

What scientists have been able to learn from sufferers of FFI is that deep sleep may trigger currents of spinal fluid to flood through channels of brain cells, clearing the brain of “debris” that built up during the day.8

Unfortunately, the saying “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” is not the right mindset. Adopt this perspective, and you’ll be dead sooner than you know it.9

You may have experienced an all-nighter at some point and felt unable to function the next day. But after the next night of eight hours of sleep, you may find you recover quickly.

However, cumulative sleep loss is a whole different story.

Rat being deprived of REM sleep for a study with the “flowerpot” technique

Did you know that until 2009, sleep deprivation was a standard torture tactic imposed by the military?

Although some argue that losing sleep is hardly a torturous experience, clinical data in humans have shown severe memory loss, hallucinations, and potential permanent damage such as psychosis and cardiovascular defects from chronic sleepless nights.

It is well established in the current literature that chronic sleep deprivation in animals results in significant morbidity. Although this has not been replicated in humans, the effects of FFI are remarkably similar to chronic sleep loss imposed on rodents.

In one study, researchers created a contraption designed to wake rats as soon as they fell asleep. Devastating results were observed. All rats died within three weeks.

The rats suffered from other odd symptoms, such as swollen limbs, weight loss, and brain damage. Autopsies revealed that the deadly cumulative effect of a lack of “neurogenesis,” which is the regrowth and rebuilding of neurons, may be to blame for the mortality observed in the subjects.10

However, at this point, it is only a hypothesis. The deaths are rather mysterious to sleep researchers.

Professor Matthew Walker, a prominent sleep researcher and author of the book Why We Sleep, hypothesizes that although we may not know exactly what damage goes on in the brain when we are in an “underslept” state, there is one thing we do know:

I think the first general point to make from epidemiological studies across millions of people is the following - that short sleep predicts a shorter life. It predicts all-cause mortality.

We also know that every disease that is killing us in developed nations has causal and significant links to a lack of sleep… So, I think people really need to start to, I think, become much more aware of the science of sleep. And I think that, in part, is why people like me have failed. We've not done a good job at communicating the science and the impact of insufficient sleep to the public.11

What Is Sleep, and Why Do We Do It?

On average, we spend 20 years of our lives asleep.

Unfortunately, a survey by the Better Sleep Council recently revealed that 15% of Americans believe sleep is a waste of their lives.12

Although the constant barrage of nonstop food, entertainment, news cycle, and long work hours get in the way of sleep, there is no benefit to loosing zzz’s.

Humans are the only species that deprive themselves of sleep for no apparent gain.13

Trust me, that Facebook feed or YouTube video is not worth the wait!

You now know losing sleep comes with numerous consequences, including death, but what exactly is it, and why do we need it?

In order to understand exactly what sleep is, we can trace its history back to the earliest life forms.

When Exactly Did “Life” Start Sleeping?

Every species of animal ever studied — from insects such as worms, bees, flies, cockroaches, and scorpions to fish, sharks, and other reptiles such as chameleons and lizards to birds and mammals — sleeps.14 Like DNA, sleep creates a bond that unites every creature in the animal kingdom.

So how old is sleep? Well, worms predate all vertebrae life, and even bacteria and other unicellular organisms have been observed to have passive and active phases similar to a light-dark circadian cycle. That would make sleep at least 500 million years old!15

Many explanations for why we need sleep center on the thought that we must cleanse and repair our bodies from the damage that our wake state has accumulated.

Sleep appears so necessary for life that maybe the real question is, why do we bother to wake up?

Sleep is a natural period of resting, defined as a state when consciousness is lost in order to repair and heal the body, reducing bodily movement and response to external stimuli.

Although its biological purpose is mysterious, everyone needs sleep. It is as essential as food and water.16

Let’s take a look at the mechanisms involved in the rest state.

Anatomy of Sleep: Cycles, Stages, and Brain Waves

There are two main biological mechanisms that work together to regulate your sleep cycle: the circadian rhythm and sleep-wake homeostasis.

The circadian rhythm, also known as the sleep-wake cycle or biological clock, is a natural cycle your body phases through during 24 hours. The circadian rhythm, which determines you sleep pattern, is associated with hormone release, digestion, body temperature, and other important bodily functions.17

Sleep-wake homeostasis is the body’s way of keeping track of sleep intensity and necessity. In other words, it keeps track of your need for sleep. When you have a sleepless night, your sleep drive reminds your body of its need for sleep and gets stronger each hour you are awake.18 You could compare it to hunger pangs when you go without eating — your body will not give up; it will continue to remind you!

Sleep is not just about quieting your conscious. Your brain does not just shut off for eight hours. Instead, your body goes through sleep stages in 90-minute periods.

In addition, every individual has different sleep needs. Although there exists a recommendation of more than seven hours for adults, there are several factors that influence your sleep-wake needs, including medications, medical conditions, stress level, sleep environment, and diet.19

All bodies have different sleep needs, but they all still experience the same stages.

Let’s take a look at where your body and mind go during the night.

Stages of Sleep

Did you know that your body and brain predictably cycle through natural sleep stages several times a night?

There are five different stages of sleep; non-rapid eye movement (non-REM) sleep includes the first four stages, while the last stage, rapid eye movement (REM), is where deep sleep happens.

Each stage of sleep is associated with specific brain waves and activity. Your body cycles through these stages a number of times throughout the night.

Let’s walk through each stage.

Stage 1: This first non-REM stage is when your body transitions from a wakeful state to sleep. This period is short, lasting only a couple minutes. You can be awakened easily during this period. Brain waves change and slow down from the day’s wake patterns. Your breathing, heart rate, and eye movements slow, and your muscles relax.

Stage 2: In this stage, you enter a deeper period of non-REM light sleep. Your body relaxes even further by slowing your heartbeat and breathing and relaxing your muscles more. Brain activity continues to slow with small bursts of electrical waves called “sleep spindles.” Your body spends more time repeating stage 2 of sleep than any other sleep stage.

Stage 3: This stage occurs in long periods during the first half of sleep. This non-REM stage is a time of sleep that is required to feel refreshed and rested the next morning. During this stage, your heart rate reaches its lowest point, your brain waves continue to slow down, and delta waves begin to appear.

Delta waves characterize the deepest stage of sleep. This non-REM brain wave pattern is only reached during sleep. It also represents a seemingly unconscious state, as people who experience them have very little memory recall.

EEG recordings of brain wave activity during the first 90 minutes of sleep
Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK10996/

In stage 3, your breathing continues to slow, and your muscles become even more relaxed. When you’ve entered stage 3, it may be difficult to wake you up.

Stage 4: During stage 4, the brain produces delta waves exclusively. This is a deep stage of sleep in which there is no eye movement or muscle activity. It is very difficult to wake someone in this stage. This is when night terrors, nightmares, bedwetting, or sleepwalking may occur.

Stage 5: This is the last stage of sleep, about 90 minutes into the cycle, when the body transitions over to the rapid eye movement (REM) stage. If you were observing someone in a REM state, you would notice very fast bursts of eye movement, back and forth, up and down, depending on what they are seeing in their dream. However, the rest of the body and all of its autonomic functions (such as heart rate and blood pressure) are practically paralyzed, keeping you from acting out your dreams. This is the stage of sleep where dreams usually occur.20

After about 10 minutes of REM sleep, the body usually cycles back through the non-REM sleep stages. On average, the brain typically has at least four additional stage-5 REM sleep cycles.

REM sleep is incredibly important and fascinating. During this seemingly restful and dormant time, the brain is actually quite active. The EEG recordings of the brain during this time are surprisingly similar to the awake state.21

Research shows that REM sleep also activates the same regions of the brain that are active when someone is learning. Could we be processing the information during the day while we are unconscious?

Evidence reveals that REM sleep seems to be necessary for memory and learning. When people are sleep deprived, they are not able to remember things they learned right before they went to bed.22 In addition, according to research at the Society of Nuclear Medicine and Molecular Imaging, REM sleep deprivation could be a sign of Parkinson’s disease and dementia.23

While we may not know exactly what goes on during REM sleep, clinical data supports a clear relationship between REM deprivation and physical changes in the brain.

Now that you know what stages your brain travels through during the night, you may be wondering how you can maximize your time spent in the most important phases of sleep, such as REM, and minimize the time where your brain and body is not as relaxed.

While all sleep stages are necessary and beneficial, REM sleep is what you need in order to wake up feeling refreshed, energized, and prepared for the day.

In part 2, we will discuss our 14 tips for your own perfect night's sleep.

To your health,

annalise-may-signature

Annalise May
Contributing Editor, Clear Health Now

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